Arthur’s Blog

Why I’m Not Going To Feel Guilty This Holiday Season, and Neither Should You.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. With Robin’s and my relocation to the west coast, Thanksgiving is even more precious as we gather with family and friends whom we haven’t seen in quite a while.

For many, Thanksgiving, and the holiday season in general, is a time to reflect, appreciate all that one has, and perhaps to ponder the fate of those less fortunate.

No way. Not me. Not this Holiday Season.

There’s no guilt trip in this Holmer Holiday blog post.  Today I’m all about sharing incredibly positive, hopeful news to brighten the season. And this blog post is about homelessness!

No, seriously this is an upbeat story about chronic homelessness. Let’s start with a quick recap from my previous blog post.  (Smiling faces, everyone!)

The homeless population is comprised of three groups: situational, episodic and chronic.  The chronic homeless make up 20% to 25% of the homeless population.

Chronic homelessness, as summarized by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, describes “people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year — or repeatedly — while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.”

When you see photos in the news of tents along the South Branch of the Chicago River, or encampments in downtown Los Angeles, these are the unsheltered, chronic homeless who are both men (70%) and women (30%).

OK, that’s the reality we face this holiday season.  But here’s the payoff for reading this far. 

There are solutions to the challenges of chronic homelessness that have worked.  We’re talking about the functional eradication of homelessness among Veterans, the permanent sheltering of 90% of the chronic homeless in New York City, and consistent success that has spanned a decade.

What we’re talking about is a process and program called Housing First.

  • Housing First has worked in large cities, like Houston, Texas, and small cities like Rockford, Illinois.
  • Housing First has its roots in New York City which has the highest housing cost of any major city in the US.
  • Housing First has succeeded in conservative communities, like Salt Lake City, and in the most progressive cities, such as New Orleans.

What is Housing First?

The core principles of Housing First was developed by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, CEO of Pathways to Housing in New York City. Dr. Tsemberis, a trained Clinical Psychologist, witnessed the de-institutionalization of mental patients in the 1980’s. He saw the nascent, problem of homelessness in and around Bellevue Hospital first hand.  What was first one or two former hospital patients he recognized living on the streets became dozens within a very short time.

In the 1980’s the accepted solution was to have the chronic homeless “earn” their way into a free or subsidized apartment.  If a chronic homeless person had a substance abuse problem, and they agreed to counseling or drug treatment, they would be given the chance to live in a heavily subsidized unit. The apartment made available to them would come with strict guidelines that demanded their continuing treatment at the risk of losing their housing.

This standards-based approach to providing free housing subsidized by our tax dollars seems utterly reasonable, even to this day.

The problem is that this approach simply did not work.

Dr. Tsemberis’s breakthrough, in my opinion, did not come as a result of any spark of brilliance or deep understanding of how housing might ultimately impact the chronically homeless situation.  Frankly, his intent was to eliminate what he saw as a searing social injustice  Dr. Tsemberis deeply believed that it is a fundamental human right for every person, no matter their situation, to have a home, that a society that allows its citizens to be homeless was without a soul.

Dr. Tsemberis’s passionate beliefs led to the creation of a pilot program that would become known as “Housing First”.

Go grab your glass of Thanksgiving wine. I’ve queued up Dr. Tsemberis’s Ted Talk mid-way in so if you just listen for 4 minutes, you’ll get a general sense of what Housing First is and what it has achieved. 

Spoiler alert.  The traditional services-first approach used before the Housing First program had a 25% success rate of keeping the chronically homeless housed.  Within a year the Housing First pilot program achieved a success rate over 85%.

As summarized on Dr. Tsemberis’s website,

We start by housing people directly from the streets, without precondition. 

Then we address their underlying issues around mental health, addiction, medical care, income, and education to help integrate and welcome them back into our community.

Q. But what if the homeless person is addicted to alcohol or drugs?

A. It doesn’t matter.

Q. What if the person has a mental illness that doesn’t require institutionalization but who refuses to accept treatment.

A. They are housed unconditionally.

Q. So, just by giving someone a home the problems of the homeless are solved?

A. No, Housing First is not housing only. Support services for the range of disabilities and challenges must be made available to, but not forced upon, those who accept housing.

Dr. Tsemberis is not a warm, fuzzy cheerleader for the Housing First model. He can be sarcastic, condescending, and overbearing. What he has done, however, is to offer us a gift. He has shown us a path to dramatically reduce and in some cases functionally eliminate the chronic homelessness that plagues far too many of our brethren.

Fortunately, more governmental, not-for-profit and faith-based organizations embraced Dr. Tsemberis’s ground-breaking work and proselytized it in ways that brought people of all social and political persuasions into fold.

Here’s a short video that highlights one success story close to home in Rockford, Illinois

Have You Been Persuaded?

Think about this as you take another sip of wine.  What if we really could reduce chronic homelessness by 80% or 90% using a Housing First approach to solving the problem.  What if we could help tens of thousands of those in need while actually reducing the total amount of tax dollars that might otherwise be spent on well-meaning efforts that simply don’t work?

It’s amazing to imagine not that there might be, but rather that there is a proven solution.

But wait, then.  Why is there such a huge, continuous and growing chronic homeless problem in LA and other cities? Certainly there are smart people in government and advocacy groups that know about the success of the Housing First programs.

Why indeed.  That’s the topic of my next blog post.